Jesse Biddle's comeback trail brings him back to a familiar place

Jesse Biddle's comeback trail brings him back to a familiar place

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Prospect status in the game of baseball is fragile and unpredictable.
A reminder of that walked down the tunnel from the visiting clubhouse and sat in the first-base dugout at Spectrum Field late Saturday morning.
Jesse Biddle had come back to the place where it all started.
He still had that friendly smile and effervescent personality. But the uniform was different and the elbow had a surgical scar on it.
Now a member of the Atlanta Braves organization, the former Phillies first-round draft pick made the trip to Clearwater and for the first time since August 13, 2015 -- the night the elbow pain became too much to bear -- pitched an inning in a competitive game.
It all seemed just a little surreal that Biddle's first game since having surgery on October 14, 2015, came against the organization that he spent six sometimes hopeful, sometimes frustrating seasons with, but as the left-hander, now 25, pointed out, "It's just one of those things. The baseball world is pretty funny that way."
The Phillies sent Biddle to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a nondescript trade in February 2016 and he was claimed on waivers by the Braves a couple of months later. For days, he'd known that the schedule called for him to pitch Saturday, but he was unsure whether it would be at home against the Marlins or on the road against the Phillies. He found out Friday that he'd be making the trip to Clearwater and was elated.
"At the end of the day I just want to pitch in a game for the first time in a long time," he said. "But I was definitely rooting for this one, for sure.
"I feel really good and I'm excited to face these red jerseys, for sure."
Biddle engaged in some light-hearted "trash-talking" via text with former teammate Tommy Joseph on Friday night and as if on cue, Joseph was the first hitter that Biddle faced since that night 18 months ago when his elbow throbbed and he was throwing 83 mph for the Phillies' Triple A team.
Biddle walked Joseph on five pitches then came back and struck out Dylan Cozens on a 93 mph fastball and Aaron Altherr on a 94 mph fastball. He ended his inning of work by getting J.P. Crawford on a groundout.
It was a very nice outing for any pitcher, never mind one with a surgically repaired elbow pitching for the first time in a year and half.

Cozens and Crawford are what Biddle used to be -- top prospects with the Phillies.
Prospects excite the imagination of fans. The excitement that followed Biddle during his time in the Phillies' system had a little extra electricity because he was a local kid who had grown up in Mount Airy, who had attended the 2008 World Series as a fan, who had pitched at Germantown Friends and who had been selected by his hometown team with the 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft.
He topped out in Triple A with the club in 2015, his path to Citizens Bank Park blocked by poor control and the elbow injury.
Biddle said he was surprised when the Phillies traded him, but he came to terms with it quickly.
"Once I got (to Pittsburgh) and I actually put on a different uniform, I realized that there are 29 other teams and that there are a lot of really good coaches out there and a lot of places that I'm happy to be part of," he said. "And now I've found my way to the Braves and it feels like home, really. It's been a really nice journey and I'm glad I found my way here."
It's never easy for a highly touted young player to succeed in his hometown. The expectations are high from the start. Add in the presence of family and friends living and breathing on every pitch and the expectations can be smothering.
But Biddle said the pressures of trying to succeed at home were never a problem for him.
"Honestly, the more I look back on it the more I realize it was just like anywhere else," he said. "Obviously it was a little different for me playing minor-league baseball and having friends and family be able to come to every game, but I really don’t believe it dictated anything that happened while I was here.
"I think that any love and support that I got was just friends and family being friends and family and I couldn’t have asked for anything different from the Phillies or anything different from my support system.
"It ended up working out the way it did and there are no hard feelings anywhere. I'm really happy with where I'm at and I know the Phillies' organization is looking really good right now."
The Braves have shown faith in Biddle. They claimed him on waivers a year ago, put him on their 40-man roster and paid him the major-league minimum salary of $507,500 even though they knew he wouldn't throw a pitch in 2016. They viewed him as a lottery ticket, a still-young pitcher with raw talent that had a chance to put it together.
Biddle spent all of last year at the Braves' facility in Florida, rehabbing his elbow after Tommy John surgery. The Braves will continue to go slow with him for the next few months. He will get his innings in the minors and, who knows, might still end up pitching at Citizens Bank Park someday, just not with the team he originally dreamed of representing.
"Honestly, I just want to play major league baseball," Biddle said. "And I want to play for the Braves."

Today's Lineup: Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in vs. Dodgers lefty Ryu

Today's Lineup: Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in vs. Dodgers lefty Ryu

Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, both of whom have been scuffling at the plate and sat out Saturday's crushing loss to the Dodgers, will return to the Phillies' lineup for Sunday afternoon's series finale in Los Angeles (see game notes).

Both right-handed batters could have favorable matchups Sunday against Dodgers' lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has a 4.64 era and has lost all four his starts thus far this season. Those four losses are the most in MLB.

Joseph, who will be at first base and bat seventh today, is hitting just .190 so far this year with one homer and 7 RBI. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact he's batting just .071 against lefties so far this year. Joseph hit .281 against southpaws last season.

Rupp's numbers this season are even less spectacular. He's batting at .180 clip with just a single homer and 3 RBI. Much like Joseph, Rupp has struggles mightily against lefties this season. He's just 1 for 12 (.083) against southpaws this season. Rupp will bat eighth today against Ryu.

With a lefty on the mound for Los Angeles, Odubel Herrera will have the afternoon off. Daniel Nava will stay in left while Aaron Altherr will move over to center in place of Herrera.

Phillies rookie starter Nick Pivetta could be catching a break in his MLB debut as the Dodgers will sit star shortstop Corey Seager on Sunday.

Both teams' lineups can be found below:

1. Cesar Hernandez 2B
2. Freddy Galvis SS
3. Daniel Nava LF
4. Maikel Franco 3B
5. Aaron Altherr CF
6. Michael Saunders RF
7. Tommy Joseph 1B
8. Cameron Rupp C
9. Nick Pivetta SP

1. Andrew Toles CF
2. Cody Bellinger LF
3. Justin Turner 3B
4. Adrian Gonzalez 1B
5. Yasiel Puig RF
6. Yasmani Grandal C
7. Chris Taylor 2B
8. Kiké Hernandez SS
9. Hyun-Jin Ryu SP

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Nick Pivetta set to debut with Phils reeling

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Nick Pivetta set to debut with Phils reeling

Phillies (11-11) at Dodgers (13-12)
4:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies suffered what may end up as their most bitter defeat of the season Saturday night. Already with a tenuous hold on the closer spot, Hector Neris gave up back-to-back-to-back homers and took his first loss of the season as the Dodgers scored four in the ninth to upend the Phils.

How will the Phillies respond? They'll send Nick Pivetta to the mound to make his major league debut while the Dodgers toss out veteran LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Here are five things to know for the series finale.

1. O Canada
The 2015 trade of Jonathan Papelbon is about to begin paying off for the Phillies.

Pivetta, a 24-year-old right-hander, will make his MLB debut when he steps on the mound in Sunday's West Coast matinee. Originally from British Columbia, Canada, Pivetta was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB draft by the Nationals and was traded two years later to the Phillies in exchange for Papelbon, who struggled as the Nationals' closer.

Since the trade, Pivetta has shoved his way quickly through the Phillies' system. In 2016, his first full season with the Phillies' organization, he threw 148 2/3 innings between Double and Triple A and had a 3.27 ERA, limiting hitters to just 7.7 hits per nine innings while fanning 138 batters. He was even more impressive in three starts this season — Pivetta has a 0.95 ERA and three wins in as many starts for Lehigh Valley and has allowed just 15 baserunners in 19 innings. He's struck out 24. His most impressive start was his last appearance, when he threw six innings and struck out 11 on April 20.

Beyond simply performing well, Pivetta earned a call-up thanks to Aaron Nola's injury. Nola's lower-back strain created a need for the Phillies in their rotation and they called upon the 24-year-old Canadian, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason.

Pivetta was a part of Team Canada in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, starting a game against Colombia in pool play. He lasted four innings and gave up just one run. He earned significant bragging rights within the Phils organization despite Canada losing the game. How? By getting his Triple A battery mate, Jorge Alfaro, out twice in two at-bats. Considering they don't face each other in any other setting, he could hold that over Alfaro for a while.

In Triple A, Pivetta has a small platoon split with lefties hitting him slightly better than righties. However, he struck out lefties at a smaller rate with an inconsistent changeup. Instead, he lives off a mid-90s fastball to pair with his slider and curveball. 

2. Recent Phillies MLB debuts
Pivetta is the first Phillies starter to make his MLB debut this season, just two days after Mark Leiter Jr. became the 18,955th player in MLB history to make his debut. Sunday's game is a bit of uncharted territory for Pivetta, but it's not for the Phillies or even Pete Mackanin. How have some recent debuts played out?

Aaron Nola: Nola had one of the better MLB debuts for a Phillies starter, going six quality innings while allowing just one run in a July 2015 game vs. Tampa Bay. He showed his stuff from the very start and wasn't intimidated by the moment. However, he picked up the loss because the one run he allowed — a home run by the opposing pitcher — was the only run of the game.

Jerad Eickhoff: A month after Nola's debut in 2015, Eickhoff one-upped his new teammate with six shutout innings in Miami. He earned a win while striking out six and allowing just six baserunners. Not bad and a sign of things to come.

Zach Eflin: Eflin had more of a classic MLB debut, a pitcher with the deer in the headlights look. He gave up eight runs and got just eight outs in Toronto last June. He was wiped out of the game after his third home run allowed.

Jake Thompson: Thompson, the most recent of the Phillies' prospects to make his MLB debut, took the hill last August against the Padres. The Friars had his number. He didn't give up any long balls but he surrendered seven hits and two walks over 4 1/3. Thompson garnered just one strikeout in the road loss.

3. Hitting off Ryu
Wins and losses aren't all that indicative of a pitcher's performance. However, it's never a good sign when you lead all of baseball in losses. 

In his age 30 season, Ryu is 0-4 through four starts. The lefty was a stalwart for Hanwha in the Korean Baseball Organization, the top league in his native Korea, and came over to the majors in 2013. He was the No. 2 starter to Clayton Kershaw for two seasons, but things went awry in 2015. He dealt with shoulder issues and missed the entire season, having the labrum repaired in his left shoulder.

It got even worse for Ryu in 2016. He rehabbed the injury and made it back in early July, only to last 4 2/3 innings before dealing with elbow discomfort. He didn't make another start last season and ended with surgery on his left elbow. 

So his early performance is concerning. His velocity is down to barely an average of 90 mph on his fastball. His changeup, slider and curveball have all elicited solid results this season, but his fastball has been obliterated by opposing hitters. All six home runs he's given up in 2017 have been on that fastball, which simply hasn't been fooling hitters and is often in the high 80s.

In total, Ryu has a 4.64 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. He's given up 24 hits and has walked five batters, although he does have 20 strikeouts. Only Freddy Galvis and Jeanmar Gomez have faced Ryu among current Phillies. Galvis is 0 for 3 while, in a shocking twist, Gomez is 1 for 1 with a single. Howie Kendrick, currently on the DL, was Ryu's teammate last season in L.A. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Maikel Franco has hit the Dodgers well in his early career (two home runs) and represents a righty-power threat against a soft-tossing lefty. Five of the six home runs Ryu has allowed this season have been to right-handers.

Dodgers: Shortstop Corey Seager was held hitless on Friday, but he has hits in all but six of his 25 starts this year as he carries the Dodgers' offense in the early going. He had a key single on Saturday during the Dodgers' 9th-inning rally.

5. This and that
• Phillies closers have five saves this year and have blown four saves in the ninth inning. The Phillies' five total blown saves are tied for second-most in the majors behind the Blue Jays' eight. Neris' blown save on Saturday night mostly came down to poor pitch location against some powerful hitters. Simply can't afford to make those kinds of mistakes against the Dodgers' lineup.

• After winning five of their first seven road series in 2016, the Phillies have lost three of their first four in 2017. 

• The Phillies won six straight games once last season — April 26-May 1. They proceeded to lose three of four directly following the streak.

• Lefty starters have given the Phillies some trouble this season. Southpaws starting games have limited the Phillies to a .244/.297/.370 batting line with more strikeouts (36) than hits (33) in four games this year.